Sunday, February 15, 2009

The concept of marriage

I will give an argument that many people in our society are operating with a concept of marriage that differs in a central way from the traditional Western concept of marriage. I will then say a little on the same-sex marriage debate.

Entry into an institution is largely or wholly defined normatively by what participation in the institution makes permissible, obligatory or impermissible. Some of these normative features of institutions are central to the role that the institution plays and some may not be so central.

In the Western tradition, one of the normative features of the institution of marriage is that it bestows on the couple the permission to engage in sexual relations. Moreover, this normative feature has been quite central to the institution of marriage in the West. For instance, this permission to have sex has very often been one of the main reasons for a couple to marry (St. Paul certainly sees it this way). In fact, of the permissions that the institution of marriage bestows on a couple, it is hard to find any others that are of equal centrality. Marriage bestows a permission to call oneself "married", but that is mainly a word. Most of the other permissions, such as those involving taxation, visitation, living under one roof, etc. are clearly much more contingent in the Western tradition.

But presently, many believe that it can be permissible for unmarried people to have sex. Therefore, entry into marriage is presumably not seen by them as the bestowal of the permission to engage in sexual relations. It is hard to deny that this is a change in a central feature of the concept of marriage. In the past, marriage's normative impact in the sexual sphere of activity was that something previously impermissible—sexual relations—became permissible. Thus, marriage significantly expanded the options for sexual activity. In the present day, marriage's normative impact in the sexual sphere is seen by many as a contraction—rather than allowing previously forbidden sexual activity with a spouse, marriage forbids previously allowed sexual activity with others. This is a very significant change in how marriage works. (I shouldn't say that marriage in the past caused no new prohibitions. For instance, it implied a prohibition against flirting behavior with others than the spouse, etc. But in terms of sexual relations, marriage extended the options.)

I suspect that few advocates of same-sex marriage believe non-marital sex is always wrong. Therefore, they are already operating with a different concept of marriage from the traditional one. Moreover, if one sees marriage sexually as primarily constricting of permissions (prohibiting sex with persons other than the spouse), then it is no surprise that one will have less difficulty with the idea of same-sex marriage—after all, what is wrong, one may ask, with a couple voluntarily constricting what is permissible to them? Expanding what is permissible is a more serious issue.

Thus, I think it is very important that those who believe in the correctness of the traditional Western understanding of marriage not overfocus on the same-sex marriage issue. The issue of fornication—and of divorce for that matter—is probably at least equally important.


larryniven said...

Hey, look at that: you and I totally agree on this one! Good luck trying to convince people to act that way, though...

Anonymous said...

Prof. Pruss:

At the end you say that those concerned about gay marriage should be at least as concerned about divorce or fornication. But isn't it true that gay marriage is different than divorce and fornication in that married people who eventually get a divorce, or people who had sex before being married (and then get married), are acting contrarily to the traditional norms of marriage in an almost accidental way, while gay marriage (assuming homosexual behavior is sinful) is essentially contrary to the tradition of marriage.

In other words, if homosexual behavior is sinful, then gay marriage essentially involves sin. But divorce happens accidentally; no one gets married in order to get a divorce.

Seems like a pretty big difference to me.

Alexander R Pruss said...

When talking of damage to the institution, I am not so much worried about an individual fornicating, divorcing-and-remarrying or attempting to marry someone of the same sex, morally wrong as these all are (with some provisos on the divorce side to take care of non-Christian marriages). I am, rather, worried about the existence of social norms permitting these. And here, the permission of fornication does very serious damage to the normative structure of the institution by turning a basically sexually permissive institution into a basically sexually restrictive institution. Likewise, the permission of divorce and remarriage does very serious damage to the normative structure of the institution by making the commitment be less than for life.

The divorce part is the most problematic. Here's why. People when they enter into a marriage don't generally have a philosophically worked out account of the nature of marriage, or of the precise content of the vows. Sure, they say certain vows, but the words of the vows are open to many interpretations, and the vows are very conventional. Rather, I think, typical people who enter into a marriage commit themselves to an institution picked out by ostension. And what they ostend to are (a) actual marriages around them, and (b) the social norms governing the institution. But if the actual marriages around them lack a commitment to unconditional fidelity until death (or, more precisely, the death of the first of the spouses to die), and if the social norms allow for divorce, then what the couple is ostending to may not be marriage, but some other institution.

Furthermore, the issue of same-sex marriage directly affects only a small minority of people. The issues of fornication and divorce affect a large majority. Joe and Jim attempting to marry isn't likely to tempt the average member of society to attempt to marry someone of his or her own sex, because the average member of society is heterosexual. (Though it may tempt one to contraceptive sexual practices, and that's a real problem.) Jim and Jill fornicating or divorcing-and-remarrying, however, are being a bad example to the average member of society.

Alexander R Pruss said...

By the way, it is possible for a couple (whether same-sex or opposite-sex) to go through the civil ceremonies of marriage and yet never engage in sexual behavior before or after. There would be sin for a same-sex couple doing that: (1) the sin of scandal in that others would assume that they are engaging in homosexual behavior and might imitate this supposed behavior, (2) the sin of misusing the institution of marriage, and (3) possibly (assuming this is an issue for them) the sin of acting in a way that is likely to lead one to temptation. But there wouldn't be the sin of homosexual behavior.

Anonymous said...

I see your points. Perhaps you're right.

But consider this analogy. What's a more serious threat to Christianity: Christians who fail to live up to the teachings of Christ or Christians who think there really was no resurrection?

The latter could be seen as more serious because it just isn't Christianty. It challenges Christianity at its core. The former are just bad Christians, but Christians nonetheless.

Isn't this analogous to the gay marriage versus Divorce and fornication issue? Divorce and fornication are to marriage what bad Christians are to Christianity, but gay marriage is to marriage what "Christians" who believe there was no resurrection are to Christianity?

I take your point about gay marriage having only a small effect on the normative structure of marriage, but is it possible that even if that is the case, it is still true gay marriage is the more serious foe because it is, so to speak, a fatal wound to marriage.

(I may be getting a little carried away; I'm not sure that gay marriage is a fatal wound to marriage. Again, perhaps you're right.)